Interview with Aria Dean

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Interview with Aria Dean

By Nat Marcus November 14, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


In early October 2017, an FBI report was leaked that labeled what the agency called "Black Identity Extremists" (BIEs) as a looming terrorist threat to the United States. The "BIE" designation appears as an attempt to counteract the philosophy of Black Lives Matter, Afropessimist thought, and any kind of recognition that the lived experience of Blackness is distinct, and extremely so. Yet much of the Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and curator Aria Dean’s recent work has taken the form of material and textual articulations of a reality particular to the ontology of Blackness. The subjects of Dean’s writings have ranged from the work of the filmmaker Arthur Jafa to the entwinement of Blackness and the internet meme, and the Black woman flâneur.

Dean’s visual artworks enact her writing and research through tactile means. The material is sometimes presented in seemingly pristine conditions, and sometimes exists in a state of distress—burnt, melted, or stretched. In any case, one faces the ambiguity, often disquieting, of an artwork silently speaking to our reality, discussing histories and futures in which we are undoubtedly implicated.

In 2016, Dean was appointed as Rhizome’s assistant curator of net art. Most recent in her curatorial work is the online New Black Portraitures exhibition. Overall, her praxis is deeply analytical, acutely ludic, and sometimes presents a much-needed threat to the expectations of the art world and the world at large.

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Nat Marcus: I remember a few years ago you were making video work and digital prints, while your Twitter and Instagram feeds have been a part of your practice. Recently your work has been distinctly material. Still, somehow it feels as if the burnt white cotton T-shirts or FUBU sneakers, the carabiners hung to PVC piping, the stockings and ribbons, are just proxies for the material of history itself. What is your process? Do you come to use these objects after developing an analysis or personal mythos for them, or you're instinctually drawn to something for its shape or tactility and it is only later that you start to understand why?

Aria Dean: I think it’s about fifty–fifty. Often I develop a personal mythos for an object or material first. I become very convinced of this mythos, and usually it’s informed by experience, by theory, and by people’s responses to past works that have used it. For instance, with the cotton, over time I became convinced that there were these specific ways the material could be received, particularly when placed next to me as "the Artist." These associations had to do with slavery, sports, or hip-hop. A lot of these expectations came out of my time in undergrad, watching the way people responded to my use of materials that had no connection, in my mind, to Black or feminist art-making.

Aria Dean. Dead Zone (1), 2017; cotton branch, polyurethane, bell jar, wood, signal jammer; 13.25 x 12.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Château Shatto, Los Angeles. Photo: Elon Schoenholz.

Returning to which comes first: I’m equally driven by concept and material. I think for a while I was forcing myself into a more analytical art-making process, partly because I felt a pressure to make objects that spoke a certain way. I think the cotton has become a way of reaching, a nice cross-section. It's a material that comes in so many forms and is so fun to work with. For instance, in my exhibition at American Medium, I stretched cotton batting on canvas stretcher bars, like you do for a painting. Materially (and conceptually), they are so satisfyingly pliable, these canvases that are stretched so thin they feel like they could rip down the middle.

But I'm also enjoying cotton conceptually, because it’s so loaded if you approach it from one angle and so utterly empty from others. So to answer in short, it's really both. But right now I am practicing giving myself the freedom to let materials guide me because I really miss working that way.

NM: You’ve also written about the political and cultural dynamics of the image, linking the ontologies of memes and Blackness, for example. How much consideration goes into your artworks' existence and accessibility as images circulated online?

AD: That is something I haven't thought about as much as you would imagine, considering the writing I've done. I think the art I make is curiously out of step with the writing. People will write things about the objects and quote me, and I feel like, “Oh, I guess?” I think lately I have been considering this more, or at least in a different way. I made those cotton branch pieces with the signal jammers, and I think those works are the most on track with my writing. Initially, in making them, I was really thinking about how they operated in physical space, emitting this clunky semiotic signal while at the same time undercutting its own communicability. The whole thing was me trying to reach a sort of visible/invisible equilibrium by overcorrecting, rather than retreating, on both ends. Those pieces had one sort of social life in the gallery space—a lot of people thought you actually physically could not photograph the work because of the jammer, which has led me to a newfound interest in the art of rumors, embedding a gossip function within an art object, giving it life on yet another plane—and they had another social life online.

NM: For example, in the case of the Dead Zone series, what is lost and what might be gained when experiencing the work on a laptop screen, rather than viewing them in the gallery space?

AD: Well, there was one in Los Angeles at Chateau Shatto, another in NYC at Foxy Production, and another in Paris at Air de Paris. Their lives all overlapped, and when posted on social media, they all looked basically the same. They sort of became a meme, on a small scale and of course without the true reach of a meme. In my mind, that piece can exist infinitely; each one is numbered, and the distant hope is that I'll make more and more and more of them. There could be a Dead Zone (999). This is also fun because it is a potentially concerning way to view an artwork: It’s not editioned, it’s not really a series, it's not fragments of one work. Each one is unique, but they are interchangeable, which I've theorized elsewhere as part of the meme's ontology, and that of Blackness. Whew!

Aria Dean. Untitled (Obscenities), 2017; satin bow, steel bars, chains, wax; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and American Medium.

NM: Christina Sharpe has described Afropessimism, which I know plays a part in your theoretical base, as an attempt “to build a language that, despite the rewards and enticements to do otherwise, refuses to refuse Blackness.”1 Elsewhere, Hortense Spillers has written of “a narrative of antagonism…inscribed in its memory.”2 Do you see your work as the construction of neologism-like Sharpe references, or as Spillers’ combative gesture, or both?

AD: I was reading something good recently about art and antagonism. Oh, I think it was Sontag's "Aesthetics of Silence." I feel lame reading Sontag in 2017 for some reason, but it's a great essay! I think I want my art to be antagonistic, but seductively so. Right now, a lot of the work is about feeling misunderstood and capitalizing on it. The American Medium show was far more self-referential and meta than I set out to make it. A lot of the work came out of a desire to antagonize, or at the very least alienate the audience. The cotton wall pieces were an antagonistic follow-up to the cotton branch pieces, or so I hoped. We'll see what people take from it.

NM: Is there a distinction between your art practice, your writing, and your curating when it comes to this?

AD: Regarding the relationship between all of these things, right now I am most excited about making stuff; I was really not excited about the idea of writing anything for a while because I felt like the things I was saying were being taken in totally off-base ways, and I was expected to perform a certain position and set of opinions in my writing. But I'm coming back to being excited about it. I feel like curating is becoming a bigger part of my practice, because I'm not as worried about it conflicting with my own art-making. For a while I thought I couldn't really be both. But I like curating and organizing programming because I can bring people together who know more about a topic than I do, or who have more to say, and then set them loose! Perhaps this sounds a little instrumentalizing, but it’s more that I like curating because I get to learn from others!

NM: And finally, what is the last book you read that truly fucked you up?

AD: Hmmm, I haven't finished yet, but June Jordan's Civil Wars collection of essays has me fucked. up.

Baby Is a Cool Machine is on view at American Medium in New York City through November 25, 2017.

Notes

  1. Christina Sharpe, “Response to Jared Sexton's ‘Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,’” Lateral Issue 1 (Winter 2012): http://csalateral.org/issue1/content/sharpe.html.
  2. Hortense Spillers, et al., "Whatcha Gonna Do?—Revisiting Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," Women's Studies Quarterly 35(1/2), 2007: 10–19.

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